Do annuals have a place in a wildlife garden? Absolutely. Annuals attract beneficial insects and many annuals are an important source of nectar for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
And lets face it, no matter how many native trees, shrubs and perennials you have in your garden or even if you have a well-designed habitat garden, there are going to be gaps in your sequence of flowering and times when you want some extra color in your garden. Annuals are the perfect way to fill the gaps and, if chosen properly, attract more beneficial insects.
A Recipe for Success
Many plants have a symbiotic relationship with insects and annuals are no different. But some annuals seem to do a much better job than others in attracting, and keeping, beneficial insects in your garden.
Recently, I attended a panel discussion on using biocontrol agents or BCAs so-called good bugs given by several plant growers based in Connecticut. While the focus of the discussion was primarily on using biocontrols inside a greenhouse, I was fascinated to hear Mark Kelly from Grower Direct Farms talk about how they use habitat planters in their greenhouses to support and feed their good bugs.
I spoke with Mark after the event and found out Grower Direct has a special recipe for creating their habitat planters that they have honed over the years.
The Main Ingredients of a Habitat Planter
~ Achillea: Mark said white Achillea seems to work much better at attracting BCAs than any other color. Grower Direct has even mixed different colors of Achillea in the same habitat planter and have consistently found the white ones to be the best at attracting beneficial insects.
~ Marigold: Mark has found the large-flowered African marigolds work best, especially the yellow ones.
From Greenhouse to Garden
Mark is still experimenting with the exact ratio of these six plants used in each planter to optimize attracting beneficial insects but he recommends that they should be the basic ingredients of a BCA-attracting habitat planter. He did note that they have tried using coneflower (Echinacea) in their habitat planters but stopped because they seemed to attract lots of caterpillar pests.
In the Grower Direct greenhouses, habitat planters are placed about 20 apart across the bays. Does that mean you need to place your habitat planters 20 around you garden? Not necessarily.
Mark suggested that for home gardeners, planting multiples of the same plant together will be more attractive to BCAs than the mixed habitat planters. If you dont have the room for six different patches of these plants in your garden, start with the habitat planters and see which flowers seem to be most attractive to the good bugs in your garden. Then plan to use multiples of those plants in your garden in the coming years.
And heres one final bit of advice from Mark. Across the board, he has found white and/or yellow flowers seem to be more attractive to BCAs than other colors. Something to keep in mind as youre choosing your annuals this spring.
For more tips on planting to attract BCAs and info on how insects find pollen, check out fellow NP&WG team member Kelly Brenners post, Pollinators and Flowers.
And, of course, thanks to Mark Kelly of Grower Direct Farms for being so generous with his knowledge and expertise.
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